Nick Lamaison looked poised and confident as he led the Miners on a clock-eating drive, converting three consecutive third downs. Down 23-16, University of Texas at El Paso’s offense appeared destined for the end zone before a key pass breakup from free safety Dezmen Southward forced a field goal.
It was a familiar situation for Wisconsin (3-1) — a team that has yet to maintain a comfortable lead late through its first three nonconference games — in its 37-26 victory at Camp Randall Saturday afternoon.
“I told the guys in the locker room, nothing really comes easy to this group,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “But I was very excited for this day to get here because I thought we’d really find out what kind of guys we have.”
Another upset to a team from a non-automatic qualifying conference in clear view, middle linebacker Chris Borland kept a sense of urgency but not panic as his defense tried to blockade the all-important final drive. Despite an early lead Wisconsin extended to 17 points in the second quarter, the pressure fell on the defense to keep the Badgers’ four point lead safe.
“We just got to buckle down,” Borland, who led all UW players with 12 tackles (3.5 for a loss) and two sacks, said. “We’ve been in that situation a few times this year, and I think we’ve got a lot of mature guys on our defense that understand when it’s ‘go time,’ when it’s make-or-break, when it’s the game.”
With redshirt freshman Joel Stave starting the first game of his career at quarterback, the Badgers’ offense managed 423 total yards under his direction, the ground game regaining its footing with 213 rushing yards.
But UW failed to build a safe lead until less than four minutes remained in the game, when a 2-yard run from James White put the Badgers ahead by 11.
Though UTEP (1-3) jumped out to an early lead on a 39-yard toss by Lamaison to wide receiver Mike Edwards, Stave took control in the second quarter on a 47-yard bomb to a wide-open Jared Abbrederis streaking down the right sideline. That playbook-opening drive took UW’s lead to 23-6 with less than five minutes before halftime, with the Badgers appearing to have finally found a steady offensive rhythm.
With two goal-line scores from Montee Ball and White earlier in the quarter, offensive coordinator Matt Canada showed creative looks in the first half. But Ball’s run would knock him out of the game less than a minute into the second quarter after his helmet collided with that of a Miners defender across the goal line.
“There were times that we were in that rhythm and getting it going and there were times that we were stalling out,” center Travis Frederick said. “It’s just a matter for us of being able to continue that rhythm throughout the entire game.”
Not scoring after halftime until the 3:20 mark in the fourth quarter, the Badgers’ offense received a surprising boost from redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon. Gordon took his first carries of the season against Utah State and 64 of his 112 yards came in the second half.
Passing the century mark on only eight carries (14 yards per carry), a pair of 20-plus yard runs from Gordon in the fourth — one of which ended with Wisconsin’s final touchdown of the game — helped seal the victory. With Ball out early, much of the rushing load fell on the explosive redshirt freshman’s shoulders.
“You got to wait your turn, you got some great guys ahead of you,” Gordon said of his workload this year. “I’m not going to pout about it … when an opportunity comes like today, you got to take full advantage of it.”
As the Badgers’ offense floundered in its scoreless third quarter, the defense started showing signs of wear, giving up a touchdown in the third and 10 more points in the final quarter. And though linebacker Mike Taylor refuted the idea that the defense began to run out of steam late, UTEP’s offense controlled the ball for over 18 of the game’s final 30 minutes.
A defensive line riddled with injuries and at times playing with only one full-time starter, defensive tackle Beau Allen, broke down in the third quarter, surrendering 41 rushing yards. Eight of those yards came on a touchdown run from Miners running back Xay Williams, finishing off a drive they started on their own 25-yard line.
The defense, led by one of the best individual performances of Borland’s career, bended but refused to break, holding on just long enough to keep Wisconsin with one loss heading into Big Ten play. But Borland pointed out that such inconsistency and critical missteps on the defensive side likely won’t be sufficient to win in Lincoln, Neb., next weekend.
“We’re not where we wanted to be — in the end we wanted to come into the Big Ten season 4-0,” Frederick said. “But I think we’re on the right track, I think we’re going to continue to improve and continue to embrace the adversity that we’ve had and move forward.”
Of Note: Joel Stave was the first freshman quarterback to start for the Badgers since Jim Sorgi did so on Oct. 21, 2000; the blocked extra point from sophomore defensive end Konrad Zagzebski was UW’ s first since J.J. Watt’s in September 2010; Borland’s 12 tackles marked his first double-digit tackle total this season; Gordon’s 26-yard touchdown run in the fourth was the longest running play of the season; freshman kicker Jack Russell made his Wisconsin debut, knocking in three extra point tries; Saturday’s win was the Badgers’ 19th-straight at home, a streak dating back to October 2009.
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